working class and the classroom

Like Donna LeCourt, and many other academics, I grew up pretty working class. My dad helps Grandpa run the family farm — in the family for 103 years now, I believe — while also taking on three part-time jobs. Mom works 40 hours a week and is always tired, it seems, because of her hard work on the job (she cooks at a nursing home), in the house, and helping on the farm. If we made class solely a matter of income, I already make more than my father on paper, and I’m only a GTA at a land-grant institution — in English, no less. Last summer I read a fantastic book, Limbo: Blue Collar Roots, White Collar Dreams by Alfred Lubrano, which discussed the uncomfortable and unsettling situation of being raised blue-collar and then getting a degree and moving into white-collar work. It was incredibly moving for a boy who feels so disconnected from his parents’ world.

In this month’s issue of College English, Donna LaCourt (of U-Mass Amherst) provides an interesting essay about the institution of class as replicated in the composition classroom and the university. She worries that many classrooms that focus on the difference between working class discourse and academic discourse, by seeing them as fully separate and oppositional, are failing working class students by “[reinforcing] the idea that class is a static identity category written into student bodies and minds, something that can only be ‘lost’ or ‘replaced'” (33).

LeCourt wants to view class as Judith Butler views gender: it is a performance. She quotes Piere Bourdieau:

Difference is everywhere. And in the United States, every day some new piece of research appears showing diversity where one expected to see homogenieity, conflict where one expected to see consensus, reproduction and conservation where on expected to see mobility. Thus, diffference (which I express in describing social space) exists and persists. But does this mean that we must accept or affirm the existence of classes? No. Social classes do not exist[…]. What exists is a social space, a spacce of differences, in which classes exist in some sense in a state of virtuality, not as something givven but as something to be done (qtd in LeCourt 38, emphasis Bourdieu’s)

LeCourt claims “we need a perspective on class that recognizes that it is always under construction, always being negotiated, and always felt and enacted in relation to other classes, discourses, and power structures” (45). In her classroom, she tries to “present writing as a constantly moving target, one where style, genre, and most important, author position are constantly changing and continually open to multiple options” (47).

LeCourt’s discussion seems helpful to me in beginning to understand class differently. It makes a lot of sense to view class as a performance, as something negotiable, something which I am becoming, performing. Pedagogically, it also makes sense to not so much focus on these supposed inherent differences between working class discourse and academic discourse. Indeed, I think they are both founded on argument (I am reading, off and on, Graff’s work Clueless in Academe, which argues pretty well that academic discourse is simply a certain style of argument that gets obfuscated by our inability to articulate how it works to our students).

LeCourt notes that her working class father makes arguments based on research in academic magazines, but that because of his working class discourse community, he doesn’t cite his sources like academics do. I think this is pretty interesting — a friend of mine has complained about the need in academics to cite sources. Why can’t an argument just be mine? he asks. This is, of course, common sense. Why can’t we just say what we want to say. Of course, academic conversations are about the conversation and situating yourself within that conversation.

One last thing, before I wrap up this little montage of reflections on LeCourt’s essay. Because I am interested in anger, I want to key in on what Vicki, a student LeCourt quotes, writes:

By the time I was nineteen I was angry about a lot of things. I felt certain that if only I hadn’t grown up in Ohio, if only my father wasn’t a car salesman, if only I had come from a different set of circumstances, I might have been part of some ivy league that would help me skate through my life. It seemed to me that my education had been deficient in some way. (40)

This rings so true for me, and for many working class students attempting to get out or climb the class ladder who are frustrated that they don’t seem to get it. I remember the anger I used to feel because Mom and Dad didn’t seem to understand how college worked, because they didn’t give the same type of support that my middle class friends received, because their house was filthy and others were spotless. This anger has subsided a bit, or rather been transfered, to anger at a system that created such structures, and that relies on the internalized hatred for many working class folks.

LeCourt, Donna. “Performing Working-Class Identity in Composition: Toward a Pedagogy of Textual Practice.” College English 69.1 (Sept. 2006): 30-51.

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One Response to working class and the classroom

  1. Mike says:

    I’m not sure if I’d say “replicated,” because LeCourt’s emphasis seems to be more on production than on reproduction. But the link you’re foregrounding between affect and performance is essential: class, one might say, is the ongoing performance of the intersection between affect and economic difference.

    The problem is that composition scholarship has repeatedly reified and romanticized that intersection and in so doing removed the performative aspect from the domain of the classroom: being “Working Class” becomes an essentialized category of identity from which one can make arguments (“I’m working class, and I think that. . .”) rather than something to be done, something in process and therefore questionable and open to change.

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